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Friday, 31 October 2014

Screw "Appendix N"!

Today's blog rant starts out inspired by something that would make a great Uncracked Monday entrance.  OSR luminary and Escapist dude Alexander Macris did a Ted-talk, a really great one, on the subject of how our intellectual diet has been steadily declining in quality over the decades.

Well worth watching.

But the thing is, someone on G+ responded to this video by suggesting that people should read all the books listed in Appendix N.  For those not in the know, "Appendix N" is an appendix found in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, which lists some 'recommended reading'.  Essentially, Gary Gygax's inspiration list.

Appendix N was largely ignored for decades, perhaps too ignored I'll admit.  But it was never  meant to be more than a list of stuff that Gygax liked that he thought would inspire people for running D&D with.  But in the last few years I've seen it get shifted by some people in the OSR from its almost-forgotten obscurity into being seen as a kind of rosetta-stone of the endless idiotic quest to find the "UR-D&D". 

I've seen some OSR-ites on blogs and forums treat it as some kind of secret code that will reveal the One True Old School style, and the way some of these people treat it is as though Saint Gygax had carefully and with a profound view to the Immense Significance of his work and it's consequence on all future generations taken an almost Biblical level of attention to just what would be on that list.  I've seen people suggest that if you haven't read the books in Appendix N you can't possibly run Old-school D&D right, and I've seen people put immense value on books that don't really deserve it just because it's on that list, and ignore other books (or reject their value for D&D play) just because they're not on Gary's Sacred List.  It's an attitude that pisses me off to no end because it expresses what I see as some of the worst mentality of some corners of the OSR, the ones obsessed with finding that "pure" and "true" D&D (with an attitude more reminiscent of a protestant-reformation than of a 'renaissance', which implies the creation of something new rather than an obsession with eliminating anything that isn't the Oldest Purest Form).

I've long felt annoyance at the Extreme-Fundamentalist Wing of old-school gamers thinking that Gary Gygax's cleverness at writing D&D means he's the Absolute Divine Authority on ALL THINGS, and that Appendix N is therefore the definitive Holy List of The Greatest Books of All Time, and the only thing worth reading; or that everything on it is a masterpiece, and not just a mix of classics, mediocrity, and drivel that a moderately-educated insurance salesman from Wisconsin happened to like.  There's stuff he included in Appendix N that, far from being "forgotten classics", have been forgotten for good reasons.  There's other stuff that was written in that same period (the 1940s-1970s) that are not on Appendix N that are just as good fantasy or sci-fi, but just happened to be stuff that Gary Gygax either hadn't read or hadn't personally liked enough to include.

More importantly, in the larger context of Mr. Macris' talk, the suggestion that reading Appendix N will make you smarter, or is a high-quality 'intellectual diet', seems pretty silly to me.  It might be a slightly better diet than modern fantasy or sci-fi, but not even all that much. I've seen quite a few people over the years, making fun of their dad reading Michael Crichton novels or their grandad reading Zane Grey, while they bragged about how much more sophisticated they were for reading Robert E. Howard. I've seen some people do the same, making fun of Twilight books while bragging about having read every single Star Trek novel.  Way too many geeks have a GROSSLY overinflated notion of how superior their pop-literature is compared to other pop-lit. I'll admit that it's a pet peeve of mine, this idea some Nerds have that they're much smarter than the 'mundanes' just because they've read some sci-fi, while not realizing just how absurdly and spectacularly uneducated they actually are. They're confusing their taste in popular literature for some kind of superiority, assuming that fantasy as a genre is inherently 'smarter' than popular romances, or westerns, or spy thrillers, when in fact it isn't.

If the idea of the "read Appendix N" argument is to say "sci-fi/fantasy of the 40s-70s is much more profound than modern scifi/fantasy", then you kind of miss the point that it's still grade-school crap compared to things you could be reading.  Why not forget about "lizard men of the lost world" or whatever, and read Farewell to Arms?  Shakespeare? Thus Spake Zarathustra? The Romance of the Three Kingdoms? The Theogony? The I Ching? Gargantua and Pantagruel? Any number of modern non-fiction books on history, anthropology, science, politics, economics, religion, philosophy, art, etc.?

Only a geek could possibly make the claim that you're SMARTER for reading Early Star Trek novels instead of Later Star Trek Novels.  It once again proves my statement that most geeks are not more intelligent than the average person, they just think they are, and for absurd reasons. 
As much as I like Lankhmar (to give just one example), and agree that the stories set there are a better quality of fiction than, say, the latest drivel in the Forgotten Realms novel-churning machine, there's still only a comparatively small gap between the former and the latter in relation to the gap between either of those and Paradise Lost, or The Conference of the Birds, or the works of Plato.

And I don't suggest that people shouldn't enjoy fantasy/sci-fi fiction, particularly the classics in that field (though again, not all of the Appendix N material can really be seen as "classics"; some of it was quite bad from what I recall, but just happened to be stuff Gary Gygax liked; who, let us remember, was a salesman, and not an Intellectual Genius We Must All Emulate).  I'm just saying that I find it hilarious when nerds who've read 100 Star Wars novels think that makes them smarter or better educated than housewives who've read 100 Harlequin romances, or teenage girls who've read 100 books about teenage vampires forced to participate in post-apocalyptic contests.  And it is only slightly less absurd when a nerd who's read some Heinlein novels - but never any of the classics of English or world literature, much less philosophy, history, world religion, or the like - thinks that having read Starship Troopers makes them intellectual giants worthy of mocking the Star-Trek fans and Harlequin Romance readers alike.

Note that this has nothing to do with the 'Tedtalk' itself.   Macris, in his talk, doesn't suggest people read Conan, he suggests they read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


Finally, let's forget for a moment the larger question of 'intellectual diet', and look at the question of "inspiration for running RPGs", or designing RPGs for that matter. If that's the goal, then sure, fine, take a look at the novels in Appendix N; but I would argue that stopping there is not going to get you all that far, for the reasons aforementioned above. I can assure you that people like Heinlein, Zelazny, Leiber, Moorcock, and to say nothing of Tolkien, did not spend all their time reading fantasy and sci-fi.  It's fine to be inspired by the better quality of scifi/fantasy work; but why not be inspired by what inspired the authors of this work?  Heinlein and Zelazny were both notably well versed in world philosophy and eastern mysticism.  Moorcock is extensively read in western mythology and esoterica (as are some of the great modern fantasy writers like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison).  Tolkien was an expert on Norse and Anglo-saxon myth and religion.  Even the old Wisconsin Insurance Salesman studied anthropology and was notoriously interested in medieval history, christian theology, and a variety of other subjects that transcended pop literature.  To say nothing of the likes of Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker and his studies of Indian mythology, history and linguistics; or Erick Wujcik's extensive knowledge of the Chinese and Japanese literary and religious classics (with whom I will eternally regret not having had more conversations about than I did).

Trading up Star Trek novels for Appendix N is, undoubtedly, a step up; but it's a TINY step up.  It's like trading in a McDonald's diet for a Subway diet.  I'm not one of these snobs who will turn his nose on a Quarter Pounder or a Subway Melt, but let's not make the mistake of thinking either are high-cuisine. And if you want to run a truly great game, or write one, I'd strongly suggest you get inspired by the stuff that inspired the writers you already love.

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Thursday, 30 October 2014

DCC Campaign Update: What Happens in The Dragon Mountains...




In this adventure the PCs managed:

-to have both the Azure Order and Sezrekan very interested in discovering what has (perhaps mortally) wounded Tiamat, and left her followers driven mad.

-to spend a couple of hours dicking each other around because the Sezrekan dude doesn't want to tell what he knows to the Azure Order dude, and vice versa.

-to discover that you can get your leather armor dyed in exchange for a reading from the Dwarven Book of Complaints.  As long as it's dyed yellow.  And you probably don't want to know how it's dyed yellow.

-to decide that they will go to Arkhome to seek out Bob Shoggoth and learn more about what has mortally wounded Tiamat, to the satisfaction of almost no one (except the Elf).

-to find Arkhome even more of a shit-hole than the last time they left it.

-to teleport to a level that was supposed to be abandoned (in the old days) but now (in the newer, shittier Arkhome) is the swamp-temple of the Frog Daemon. 

-to get there right in the middle of a ritual of human sacrifice.

-to bravely fight off the cultists, and then fight their way all the way up to the boundary line between the warring gangs of the Frog Cultists and the Halconlords.

-to identify themselves to the Halconlord guards as the party of Bill the Elf, one of the brave heroes who a year-and-a-half ago saved Arkhome from the Eye Tyrants.

-to discover they did so only to have the Halconlords remember how two years ago Bill the Elf was one of those who intruded in their secret base, stole their hostages, and ruined their plans to end the gang war and take the whole city.  Also, how a year-and-a-half ago Bill the Elf's party were the ones who killed The Thrush, second-in-command of the Halconlords.

-to have to bravely flee the Halconlords to the relative safety of the Frog Cultist levels.

-to end up in a frantic running fight (one that almost kills half the party) all the way down the cultist levels of the Snail Tower, out into the canyon-bottom level of Arkhome (formerly known as the Barrens, but now known as, they discover, the Cannibal Vine Swamp), and just barely make it to the Cathedral Tower.

-to end up the prisoners of the Snake Witch, whose gang has returned from being almost wiped-out to taking terrible revenge on Queen Booboo and her halflings, retaking the Cathedral and slaughtering every last halfling in Snake Witch territory.

-to find that the Snake Witch, having Tiamat as her patron, has also gone mad.

-to drive Bill the Elf to the point that he couldn't take it any longer, and returned to his former wacky-weed-using ways, to reach Bob Shoggoth.

-to discover, through Bob (or a drug-filled haze resembling Bob), that it is something called the "Egg Beyond" that has entered this world, and struck down Tiamat, and that it threatens to crack open the entire world. That it ate the stars of the universe a million years ago and now hungers to finally devour the Last Sun in this, the one world the Ancient Ones preserved.

-to express a determination to do whatever they can to stop this Egg Beyond, and the end of all life outside the dark eternal Void outside the universe.

-to feel dismay at Bob Shoggoth not liking their chances.

-to contact Sezerkan, only to have the latter decide he's sick of the PC's lollygagging around Arkhome and teleport the whole party to the Dragon Mountains, near (but not too near) the lair of Tiamat, Queen/King of Dragons, now dying.

-to have Bill the Elf continue to keep secrets from the party, much to their confusion.

-to have the other Elf (Rick, sometimes known as Rickandra for purely mercenary reasons) decide in that confusion to contact his new patron, the Lord of All Flesh.

-to realize the depths of slimy perviness of the Lord of All Flesh, as if the name alone was not hint enough.

-to make a really bad deal with the Lord of All Flesh.

-to have the entire party (minus their guide Frenchie the Gold Mutant, the only character who saved his Will roll) black out to discover the next day that they'd had some kind of demented orgy they thankfully have no recollection of.

-to agree that what happens in the Dragon Mountains, stays in the Dragon Mountains.

-to discover that Frenchie is nowhere to be found, having apparently fled in terror and/or disgust.

-to press on toward Tiamat's lair, only to discover a band of 12 dwarves on a quest to slay the dragon and take its treasure to fund the recovery of their lost homeland; led by none other than Prince Bongo, son of Bong (who was slain when he attempted the same quest a generation ago, as was his father before him, and his grandfather and great-grandfather before him).

-to find these dwarves seriously equipped, with their chain mail and traditional Battle Axes, as well as their traditional Monofilament Whips, Missile Launchers, land mines, Magnetic Grenades, and Blaster Rifles.

-to encounter a Mountain Giant in the middle of the night, maddened and mutated by some thing from beyond, powerful enough to barely be scratched by a land mine, and to snap a Red Mutant Caveman-Psychic's leg like it was a twig.

-to fortunately manage to scare off the Mountain Giant with traditional elven magic, and to save the Red Mutant Psychic Caveman with traditional dwarven medibots and nanostims.

-to reach the Great Dragon Mountain, and thus the gateway to Tiamat's Lair, and a confrontation to come with the Egg Beyond.

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: The Inn of Lost Heroes


This is a review of the adventure module “The Inn of Lost Heroes”, published by Small Niche Games, written by Peter Spahn.  It is marketed as an adventure for 3-5 characters of levels 3-5 on the cover (though the introduction says 4-6 characters instead).  Its presented as an adventure for Labyrinth Lord, but of course we know that means its very easily usable in almost any OSR game. This adventure is about 30 pages long, with a handful of appropriate artwork throughout; nothing spectacular, but nothing amiss either.



I’ve reviewed many of Spahn’s adventures at this point, and they are always pleasant surprises very far afield from the typical OSR-dungeon-crawl.  Spahn’s adventures always have plots, chronological timelines, and a wealth of NPCs and background, all without falling too far off from the old-school aesthetic.  The Inn of Lost Heroes stays true to this mold, and tries to add a new twist: an OSR horror story.  To make this work, though, I find that the module relies on a somewhat more heavy-handed tactic than usual for his adventures.

As usual with adventures, I am wary not to reveal too many details in order not to spoil the fun for potential players.  What I have chosen to tell about this adventure is that it is based on a cursed/haunted Inn, and can thus be very easily introduced to most any campaign.  Part of the horror of the Inn is that it is a kind of trap for those who enter, moving the hapless travelers into a demi-plane full of silent-hill style creepiness. In order to escape, the PCs must solve the mystery of what terrible event occurred at the Inn in the first place, who is responsible for its curse, and go through a series of very difficult trials to break the curse.

When I talk about “heavy-handedness”, I’m referring to various elements of the adventure that are made to limit the PC’s abilities and to ratchet up the pressure.  But I should note that strictly speaking, the adventure is not a railroad; it is even possible to avoid being trapped in the Inn based on PC choices, though if you do that, in essence the adventure is over.

Once the PCs are trapped in the Inn, the rest of the adventure is very much a micro-sandbox; there’s no particular order in which PCs must act, investigate, or interact with the Inn.  What happens from there is entirely in the hands of the PCs. There are a series of setpiece encounters in this stage of the adventure, which depend on what rooms the PCs investigate, and a number of random encounters that are generated by a table.  Its quite well designed in that sense.

On the other hand, the adventure is set up so that no level-appropriate magic or items can allow premature escape from the Inn’s curse.   And the adventure is set up, as far as I can see, to seriously tax the PCs’ resources, unless they’re really quick to figure things out and act. What’s more, the “solution” to the curse depends on a number of individual challenges, each of which is better suited to one character class over the others, but that solution also results in a curse that affects said character from that moment until the end of the adventure.

The culmination of the adventure involves confronting a truly fearsome enemy (for that level), and then the PCs are faced with an easy way out versus a much more challenging (and seemingly fatal) one that is nonetheless the “right thing to do”.

I could see some players, while not being railroaded, nevertheless feeling somewhat forced by the moral implications of certain choices.

On the whole, like all of Spahn’s adventures I’ve reviewed thus far, this is a very worthwhile adventure.  In spite of some potential problems and the challenges that could be faced by certain groups, the overall plot and ambiance of the adventure is fantastic.  If you think that the theme of this adventure is the sort of thing you or your player group would enjoy, then it would certainly be recommended.

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(originally posted July 6, 2013; on the old blog)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Why I'd Give a Crap About Being Inclusive

Some people have responded to my blog entry yesterday, or other comments where I've spoken up in support of inclusive language in D&D, with a bit of befuddlement as to why I'd bother.  Why open up a 'can of worms'?  

Obviously, the fact that the Pseudo-Activists have tried to unfairly portray me as homophobic or transphobic factors into the reason to make unequivocal statements to the contrary. But that's only a reason to be more vocal about my actual convictions, not the reason for the convictions themselves.

The real reason I care about this (in spite of being neither transgender nor LGBT) is the SAME reason I care about most of the other issues I bring up: I have a profound aversion to people who think they know "what's best" for other people. Whether that's because they took a Cultural Studies class in a Liberal Arts College, or because they think that God happens to have the exact same prejudices they have is pretty much irrelevant to me.

I have these convictions precisely because I am a dedicated individualist, and despise the idea of collective groups trying to control other people's lives, or try to impose their ideas of how they think other people should or shouldn't be, think, or act. It seems crazy to me to think that anyone could claim they believe in the rights of the individual while thinking that they should get to impose their own ideas of what others should do with their identities.

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Monday, 27 October 2014

UnCracked Monday: Stop Thinking of the Children Edition

Today, it's somewhat of an old article, but since it's recently been brought to the attention of theRPGsite through a stupid thread I won't bother linking to, I'm going to share the interview Mike Mearls had with The Mary Sue a few months back, on the subject of gender diversity and sexuality in the new edition of D&D.

I'll note (for the record again, as there are always people willing to try to lie about my opinions on this) that I wholeheartedly support what Mike is saying in this interview.  I'll venture to say that so do the vast majority of D&D fans.  The Outrage Brigade wants to paint regular roleplaying as a toxic culture of misogyny and homophobia/transphobia because it serves their agenda, but that's certainly not been my experience of the vast majority of people who play D&D.  The ones who are raising up an idiotic stink about this (as a couple of people did on theRPGsite) are a small minority, a marginal group (I at least haven't heard of a single person of influence in D&D fandom or the OSR or whatever who have taken the side of "we don't approve of the inclusive language in D&D") whose opinion is being resoundingly rejected by most regular gamers (as indeed it was in theRPGsite).

In particular, the idea that gender diversity or a recognition of the full spectrum of sexual orientation is somehow not appropriate for D&D because it's a "family game" is stupid. The "it will harm the impressionable children" thing is bullshit.



First, there are children who are transgender, and gay. While not necessarily having the words for it at certain ages (in part because the idiotic notions of society hides those words from them from ill-thought notions like the ones some have shown in this thread) all the evidence suggests that these orientations or gender identities are present in childhood, they don't magically spring up sometime post-adolescence.  And kids that are "heteronormative" or "cisgendered" aren't going to suddenly not be that way because of two lines in a D&D rulebook.

Second, most kids are already becoming aware of this in this present time; if you're a parent, 'not talking about it' is neither going to make things go away nor prevent your kids from hearing about it from other sources.  Trying to hide it is not just stupid, it's rapidly becoming futile. And in fact, I would go further and call it malicious;  no kid who isn't transgender is suddenly going to want to become transgender because of a line in an RPG (an argument as stupid as the ones used in the 1980s about D&D and violence or D&D and "satan-worship"), but some kids who are gay, or transgender, just might find some kind of reassurance in a game where they see these things addressed positively. 

Finally, for the most part, "the children" are not the ones who give a shit. In my DCC campaign, it's the 10-year old player who's playing a gender-fluid character; and he has no problem with it at all. I have no idea if there's some OOC motivation for it, or if he's just totally comfortable with roleplaying it because he doesn't see it as any kind of big deal; but frankly, either way I think that's awesome.

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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

WWII is over. The boys are coming home. But the world still isn't exactly normal; Europe has been completely devastated, and most of it is still occupied, either by American troops (which will eventually leave) or by the Red Army (which, everyone is starting to clearly realize, will not).  Old enemies who had become allies of convenience will once again become enemies.  And people will be taking advantage of the chaos of post-war Europe to engage in acts of revenge, or of opportunism.

And very suddenly, in the U.S., everyone wants to be normal, and live normal lives.  Even super-heroes.  While being given the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Flash saves the day by defeating the slow-moving villain known as The Turtle:






And, right after that, he announced his retirement from super-heroics.  The world, it seems, was just moving too fast these days even for the Fastest Man Alive.

Meanwhile, the Mystery Men were recruited by Zatarra the magician to fight one of their own: the wizard Sargon, who had put together a team of occultists seeking to immanetize the blooming of the New Aeon by stealing the true copy of the grimoire known as the Clavicula Solomonis from the Black Library of Forbidden Books in the Vatican.
Among his crew were such occult luminaries as the German adept Frater Saturnus, the Italian alchemist Julius Evola, American Techno-magician Jack Parsons, the aging French mystic gentleman-thief known as Fantomas, and Hawkman, chosen Champion of Horus.
To provide backup, they'd hired the ex-german mercenaries of the ruthless and brilliant Otto Skorezny, who managed to go toe-to-toe with the Archangel and Lady Lightning.  He would get away, only to later be captured while trying to make his way to Spain (though history suggests that he will later escape facing trial for his crimes and go on to a long career as a soldier-of-fortune).

In the end, the wizards failed in their attempt to steal the mighty book of magic, but the PCs were left wondering just which side was really the one worth fighting for, if indeed there was a side worth fighting for at all. And unbeknownst to all, the vatican was left infiltrated by Vandal Savage, who no doubt has long-term plans for the Black Library.

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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Would M.A.R. Barker Have Loved Arrows of Indra, Even as the Fanboys Who Govern Tekumel Today Snub the OSR?

According to someone who actually played with him, yes.

In a blog entry from a couple of days ago, in the comments section, one of the good Professor's players had a few choice words to say about Arrows of Indra:

"AoI may be the best set of rules for Tekumel, as I think it may be the best yet reflection of how Phil actually played in his game sessions... :)"

He also agreed with my general position about what's wrong with Tekumel, the fault of every fan-driven 'revival' of Tekumel (and there sure have been a lot of these) after the original, gonzo and fairly cool Empire of the Petal Throne. 



The latter bears little resemblance to how any of its successors look, wherein they replaced a focus on adventuring with a focus on obsessive-compulsive attention to the minute details of Tekumel's language and culture, with pseudo-anthropology and pseudo-linguistics (things, I'll note, that help make a game cooler in VERY SMALL DOSES) being overloaded to the point of becoming an entry-barrier to any new potential fans.

The same blog comment from an actual player at Barker's table pointed out:

"The multitude of published Tekumel RPGs, with the probable exception of EPT itself, do not give anybody a good basic introduction to Tekumel - and they certainly do not reflect the Professor's own style of play."

Naturally, AoI does have a certain resemblance to the Tekumel setting, because Barker borrowed a lot of stuff from Epic India, the same source I used for AoI. However, I tried as much as humanly possible to make AoI totally accessible to a standard D&D-fan who has no prior knowledge of indian myth, culture, anthropology, or linguistics, and who doesn't want to bother with those things and just have a cool place to adventure in. That was the goal.

Unfortunately, it's not a goal that the people managing Tekumel have shared, not for years.
I just found out that someone has recently published yet another Tekumel RPG, and (insanely) the new edition is not going to be OSR, which one would think of as a colossal mis-step if it wasn't for the fact that it's likely pre-meditated. For all their talk, most Tekumel fans WANT their setting to be obscure and under-appreciated, so that:
a) they can complain about that
b) they can feel like part of a special exclusive club of the people who 'get it'
c) they can feel superior

It's fucking sad. There was nothing to prevent a reintroduction of an adventure-focused, weird-science-fantasy focused Tekumel with rules compatible to the most popular RPG in history.  With the huge popularity of the OSR, this was the moment to do it.  Shit, they could even have used Arrows of Indra s their model, since everything about AoI's rules are free for use.  

The fact that they didn't even bother pretty much proves that the Tekumel hardcore have no interest in appealing to a wider audience.
 

I'll end by noting that I'm sure Barker himself was an amazing dude, given the scope of what he created. I'm sure he and I could have had a lot of things to talk about.  It's a pity that his intricate and interesting setting, inspired by the very same cultural and mythological sources that inspired me to write Arrows of Indra, are being left to languish in the hands of a tiny group with no interest in, and active interests working against, bringing that work to the widest possible audience.

P.S.: A promotional note: Because of RPGNow's "Halloween Sale", you can now get Arrows of Indra on PDF for only $3.34!

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